The Charity of Fraternal Correction
Gospel Reflection for September 10, 2023 - Matthew 18:15-20
But if thy brother shall offend against thee, go, and rebuke him between thee and him alone. If he shall hear thee, thou shalt gain thy brother.
And if he will not hear thee, take with thee one or two more: that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may stand.
And if he will not hear them: tell the church. And if he will not hear the church, let him be to thee as the heathen and publican.
Amen I say to you, whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in heaven.
Again I say to you, that if two of you shall consent upon earth, concerning any thing whatsoever they shall ask, it shall be done to them by my Father who is in heaven.
For where there are two or three gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. (Matthew 18:15-20 DRA)
The readings for this Sunday focus on a topic which many today find difficult, and some may even see a contradiction and an inappropriate connection drawn between the Epistle from St. Paul and the other readings. This topic is the spiritual work of mercy and fruit of charity called fraternal correction. While this work can be practiced toward Christians and non-Christians alike, it is principally intended for fellow, “fraternal” Christians, and the readings from Ezekial and St. Matthew present it primarily from this perspective. In the first, God has appointed a “watchman for the house of Israel,” and in the second, Our Lord is instructing His disciples, and in a sense all Christians, on the best practical way to correct other Christians.
Why is this a difficult topic to discuss today? For two reasons. Firstly, the requirement to correct others’ sins and warn them about the consequences of their actions, whether in this life or in eternity, seems to contradict Paul’s teaching that the Law consists in love, that one who always acts in charity will never violate a commandment. The world today, including the Church, tends not to see correction as love. Any time a Christian offers correction for sin, much less a warning of possible ruination and damnation for a sinful life, popular rebuttals immediately appear: Who are you to judge me? How can you criticize others when you sin too? How can you be certain I could go to Hell for how I live? Do my actions hurt anyone? These questions tend to be followed, regardless of the Christian’s response, by the common labels of judgmental, bigot, hateful, intolerant, zealot, fanatic, etc., with correction connected to memetic acts of bullying, abuse and terrorism.
In modern times, when many societies throughout the world are pluralistic, and when technology gives many people the ability to violate the natural law but avoid most consequences of their acts (as with contraception, abortion, etc.), it is often difficult for people to see the truth that sin leads only to misery and corruption. We are given countless examples of supposedly “happy” celebrities and politicians who live in sin and celebrate their wrongdoing on public forums. For many, especially the young who are more vulnerable to the seductions of appearance and emotion, correction seems not only unnecessary but intrusive, outdated and even violent. Accordingly, many people, including Christians, believe that the best approach to other people’s wrongdoing is not to uphold them to some “idealistic” dogma – rather, for them, true love ultimately demands indifference, individualism and relativism, “live and let live”.
Secondly, the topic of correction is difficult for Christians themselves, not only from the worldly perspective I described above but also within a Christian context. Even when Christians blatantly reject and violate Christ’s teachings as given through His Church, whether through heresy and schism (historic or modern), advocating the popular errors of the day above the timeless wisdom of the Church or else practicing and blessing grave sins while advocating for evil, the idea of correcting fellow Christians, whether Catholic or not, can seem presumptuous or even dangerous. How can I presume to know Christ’s teaching better than someone else? With my own sins and ignorance, who am I to correct another Christian, much less warn them of the eternal consequences their actions may have? For many Christians today, even Catholics, the Faith is ultimately ambiguous. The errors of sola scriptura and modernism have greatly exacerbated this sense, for which the doctrines of the Church are not a strong foundation, a clear lens to see the world or the one beacon of hope for eternal life. When every Christian seems to believe differently, even Catholics, how can any one Christian correct another? Similarly, with the rapid growth of irreligion and anti-Christian persecution in the world today, even in the West, as many parents see their children abandon the Faith and accuse their parents of ignorance and bigotry, isn’t it dangerous to admonish a fellow Christian? Shouldn’t we just be happy that they are still Christian at all, instead of risking them losing faith too through our rash judgment?
How can we answer these two arguments? As always, both critiques have some truth to them, and their legitimate concerns should be acknowledged. Christians should always act with charity, regardless of how horrific the evil may be that they are correcting, and we should also know that not everyone will share our beliefs and values. Likewise, we should be grateful when someone is Christian, and we should always be clear in our understanding of the teachings of the Church before we correct anyone.
Nevertheless, these truths should not lead Catholics to pusillanimity and cowardice. By the example of Scripture and the saints, charity does not mean allowing everyone to jump off a cliff simply to avoid offending them. Nor does it mean that Christian truth applies only to Christians, or that simply calling oneself a Christian is sufficient to merit salvation: “Not every one that saith to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven: but he that doth the will of my Father who is in heaven, he shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 7:21) As Catholics, we must cling to the Deposit of Faith in Scripture and Tradition without timidity, compromise or ambiguity. No fear of persecution, from the world or our fellow Christians, should dissuade us from announcing the Gospel with boldness, courage and hope, firm in the knowledge that only through Christ can the world be saved from sin and the despair and damnation which are its inevitable ends.
No matter how the world gilds sin in glitter and glamor, and no matter what labels it affixes to those who call out sin for what it is, we must never fall into the trap. Immediate bodily gratification or social popularity are fleeting and hollow goods compared to the eternal happiness of Heaven – this must be the message that we proclaim to the world and to our children. Accusations of rigidity, judgmentalism, fanaticism or exclusivity are only smokescreens to obscure the truth. So long as we correct others with charity, patience, humility and understanding, without presuming their ultimate fate and offering correction only for the sake of the other person and for Christ rather than for our own benefit, we will practice fraternal correction as Ezekial and Our Lord delineate in the readings for today, with the Church as the ultimate arbiter of reconciliation, and if we fail to correct others, through word and example, we will be judged along with them. Only through grace can the world be converted to Christ and find the happiness in Him which is immune to every worldly distraction, empty promise and self-righteous abuse. As the Catechism teaches:
Conversion is accomplished in daily life by gestures of reconciliation, concern for the poor, the exercise and defense of justice and right, by the admission of faults to one’s brethren, fraternal correction, revision of life, examination of conscience, spiritual direction, acceptance of suffering, endurance of persecution for the sake of righteousness. Taking up one’s cross each day and following Jesus is the surest way of penance. (CCC 1435)